Infrastructures of refuge as humanitarian goods

Authors: Elisa Pascucci*, University of Tampere
Topics: Political Geography
Keywords: Refugees, shelter, infrastructures, humanitarian goods, Greece
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 12:40 PM / 2:20 PM
Room: Estherwood, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The paper draws on fieldwork in Lesvos, Greece, and Stockholm, Sweden, to explore the design and usage of the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU) produced by the social enterprise Better Shelter, owned by the IKEA Foundation. Engaging with recent geographical work on infrastructures and shelter topologies, as well as the anthropology of “humanitarian goods”, I focus on three main aspects of the RHU. First, I explore the tension between modularity and adaptability/flexibility that marks its ideation and design. Second, I consider the temporalities of the Better Shelter, highlighting its attempt at responding to both the accelerated time-frame of ‘crises’ and the increasingly protracted nature of contemporary displacement. Third, I examine the usage of the shelter in the Kara Tepe camp, Lesvos, through different phases of the so-called 2015-2016 ‘crisis’. I thus reflect on the contradictions of responding to the need for shelter in displacement through ‘goods’ that are both the product of humanitarian concerns, and processes of value generation in the context of the encounter between global aid and global markets. Can a portable prefabricated building serve the function of infrastructures that should enable refugees to live a safe familial and social life? I argue that, by making private actors reliant on international and non-governmental organizations purchasing their products, the RHU locks the provision of refugee shelter into large-scale humanitarian economies. Materializing it into a commodity, it perpetuates rather than solving the tension between temporary and durable, mobile and static, material and non-material that characterizes the infrastructures of today’s refugee camp.

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